Caring for Elderly Women Key Issue of Aging

July 29, 2013
By Liu BohongEditor: Leo Yin

An elderly woman reads newspaper at a park in Beijing, capital of China.[Xinhua]

An elderly woman reads newspaper at a park in Beijing, capital of China.[Xinhua]

Elderly Women Account for Larger Percentage of Aging Population

As society develops and people lead better lives, people, all over the world, tend to live longer. In 1950, the average life expectancy, globally, was 46 years; by 2012, the average life expectancy had risen to 70 years.

As the average life expectancy has increased, it has become abundantly clear that women live longer than men.

In China, the average life expectancy of a woman was 73.1 years in 1998. That was 3.7 years longer than the average life expectancy of a man. By 2010, the average life expectancy of women in China had increased to 77.37, or 4.99 years (the gap had widened) longer than men. That means women in China account for a larger percentage of the aging population. It also means we must take into account women-related issues when we address the problem of the aging society.

Long Life Does Not Equal High Social Standing

To some extent, a woman's position in the job market decides her position in society.

First, it is widely accepted in China that men should work to support their families while women should take care of their homes. That is why more men than women go to work. Second, men usually do more important work than women. Men usually engage in full-time employment, in technical or managerial positions, while women engage in part-time employment, as assistants or in the service industry. Third, men tend to earn more money than women. Fourth, a woman's career is most likely interrupted by pregnancy or other housework. When a woman returns to work after time off, she is unlikely to have an appropriate position. Fifth, women retire at an earlier age than men. Sixth, women do not receive payments for doing the housework.

Disadvantages in the job market tend to affect women's social security; in most countries, social security is tied to the job. That means salary, job position and length of work help determine the amount of money a person will receive through unemployment insurance, endowment insurance, medicare, maternity insurance and industrial-injury insurance. Compared with men, women tend to receive fewer—and lower—social security benefits. Some women do not receive a pension after they retire; that is why they receive less income than men when they are elderly.

A woman's position in her family is affected by the disadvantages with which she must cope in the job market. Housewives depend on their husbands, which means women who earn less money tend to have a lower position in the family.

Women's traditional role of taking care of the home means women are expected to take care of themselves and their husbands and children.

Women, especially elderly women, always place greater emphasis on the interests and health of their family members, often to the exclusion of their own interests and/or health. Yet, they have no one to care for them after their husbands die and their children have grown.

A woman's roles in society, and within her family, will affect the community services that she receives.

Since elderly women can take better of themselves, compared with men, and as elderly men have more money, the men tend to receive more community-based services. On the other hand, elderly women tend to provide (rather than receive) services to the elderly men.

Key Issue of Aging is the Issue of Elderly Women

From a gender perspective, people may soon find out gender differences on the issue of aging. Therefore, the international community, especially the feminist movement, argues that the key issue of aging is the issue of elderly women.

First, the average life expectancy of women is longer than the average life expectancy of men, but the quality of women's lives tends to be relatively low. After women become elderly, they are vulnerable to some diseases, such as osteoporosis, cardiopathy, urinary tract infection and depression. In addition, they may not receive adequate care, either from society or their families.

Second, since women tend to live longer than men, their quality of life is reduced when their husbands die. In many countries, when a wife dies, her husband might remarry; however, if a man dies, his widow might not remarry. In some countries, the customs might make it more difficult for an elderly woman to remarry.

That is why many elderly women have to live alone after their husbands die.

Third, elderly women tend to live in poverty. In many countries, single parents and elderly women are often plagued by poverty. In underdeveloped countries, the rights of the elderly are often violated. Of the elderly people who commit suicide or who are subjected to cruelties or abandonment, most are elderly women who have a poor education and who have lost their husbands and/or their jobs.

Focus on Gender Equality as It Pertains to Aging

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan once said, "During the process of aging, we should focus on the gender differences. In most countries, women tend to live longer than men. But elderly women are relatively poorer than elderly men. They are more vulnerable to some chronic diseases, and they are often ignored or discriminated against. However, women play key role in the household. They have to take care of their children, their parents and themselves, and their contributions to their families and the communities are often neglected."

Obviously, raising elderly women's social positions and improving their lives should be key objectives of public policies.

First, gender equality must be considered in any legislation related to aging. We should: Maintain gender-sensitive data bases, adapt gender-analysis tools to China's culture, use gender-sensitive analysis when studying the issue of aging, formulate and implement aging-related policies that advance gender equality, formulate gender budgets and implement a gender-equality-evaluation system.

Second, we have implemented the State policy of gender equality, to raise women's social position. We should also reform and improve the social system, to raise women's position in economic, social, political, legal and cultural affairs. This is how we will be able to provide elderly women with an ideal environment to enjoy their lives.

Third, we should pay more attention to the aging population. Even though the elderly have made great contributions to society, their voices, especially the voices of elderly women, are rarely heard during the formulation of public policies. We must place greater emphasis on the requests of elderly women, and we should concentrate on the issues of housing, supporting parents and marriage when we formulate aging-related policies and laws.

Fourth, we should enhance empowerment of elderly women. If women grow old with knowledge, financial resources and political power, they will have a better quality of life.

The feminist movement has already played its part, and has given us meaningful experiences; for example, it has raised women's sense of gender equality and improved elderly women's political participation, and it has helped elderly women make financial plans, to make good arrangements for their lives. In addition, it has helped elderly women participate in social affairs, to maintain their good spirits, and it has helped elderly women learn knowledge about menopause and aging, to deal with all kinds of physical changes. Also, it has helped elderly women learn about laws and policies, to protect their rights, and it has helped elderly women establish sound relations with their family members, support each other and take care of each other. The movement has also helped elderly women establish both a social-support network and equal and harmonious partnerships with men. 

(Source: Women of China English Monthly May 2013 Issue)

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